Photography by Bénédicte Desrus.
I grew up halfway between religion and homosexuality,” says Samantha Aurelia Vicenta Flores García, one of Mexico’s most prominent transgender activists and the force behind a groundbreaking day shelter for LGBT senior citizens. On the phone her voice sounds soft and bright before turning powerful. Twenty years ago she was transformed from a hyper-successful publicist into a high-profile activist by the death of a close friend with AIDS. She has not looked back.
Flores’s sense of self is unyielding, and it derives its strength from her struggle with owning her identity. It goes back at least to the moment she chose to go blonde, simultaneously rejecting men’s clothes that she’d been forced to wear through her teens like a tourniquet.
“Being a blonde is great for procuring things and securing lovers,” says Flores, the founder of Laetus Vitae (Full Life), the umbrella organization for the day shelter for elderly LGBTs in Mexico City, now in its 15th year. Flores plans to add a second service in time, providing sanctuary to at-risk homeless youths who will in turn learn to care for the elderly during their stay.
Today, Flores gives talks to youth on sexual responsibility and lectures on transgender issues in universities and other venues. She has even addressed representatives of Mexico’s Congress regarding the rights of the LGBT community. “While most women my age are resigned to their fate, I find myself with a lot to do,” she says. In the process she has earned the respect and fondness of the international community. Earlier this year she was awarded the Transexualia Prize by transgender women in Madrid, Spain, in recognition of her work.
Before she became a publicist, Flores was a renowned transgender hostess at the Camelia la Tejana club, located in the posh neighborhood of San Ángel in Mexico City, a venue favored during the 1970s by celebrities, stars, and business tycoons — who went there mainly to see her. “I never received a complaint from the customers,” she says. “I cannot say the same about the employees, who, after finding out that I was trans, used to pretend I didn’t exist. I had to work hard to prove myself, until they started needing me.”
But despite her pioneering role, it was only in 2013 that Flores was able to officially change her identity. Last year she realized her dream of being christened as Samantha in the Catholic Church. “I felt a sense of peace,” she says. Although oppressed by her religion, she still attends mass every Sunday “because my father would have liked me to.”
Mexico during the 1930s, an era in which the Catholic Church held sway, was a very different place than the socially liberal society that has emerged there in recent decades. Flores was born in 1932 in Orizaba, a small city in the state of Veracruz, under the overwhelming burden of tradition and machista values. Vicente Aurelio — her birth name — was the second of five siblings in a traditional Mexican family. Her father was a union worker in a beer factory; her mother was a housewife.
At the age of 12, Flores fell in love with David, a high-endurance athlete who was then 19. It was a crystallizing moment. “In the third year of our friendship, we became lovers,” she recalls. Their romance flourished as they listened to Luisa Fernanda, a famous Spanish operetta, and read the poetry of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. On a park bench, Flores would lay her head on David’s legs. “He was my knight in shining armor,” she says. “He taught me how to kiss and aroused in me the love of music.”
It was in the fourth grade that Flores dressed as a woman for the first time. “The teacher had the idea that I should perform disguised as a little black dancer. My mother was elated. She made the dress for me, and I sang and danced happily.” Later she discovered a passion for classical ballet and approached her father for lessons. Although not particularly pleased, don Vicente Flores Ortiz gave Flores the money. Being the only boy in the classroom was quite the scandal in small-town Orizaba. People gathered in front of the window to watch. Don Vicente advised Flores to leave for Mexico City as soon as possible, “so that you are allowed to live your life.”
It would take quite a few more years for Flores to leave Orizaba, but a chance raffle prize while she was working in the same factory as her father secured her escape. She won a car and then promptly sold it to travel to the United States to learn English. Soon she was back in Mexico City to study hotel management at the very moment when tourism to the country was booming. She found a job as a receptionist at Las Brisas de Acapulco, a first-class hotel inaugurated during the heyday of the renowned beach resort.
In 1964, still presenting as male, Flores attended the pageant for La Coronación de la Jota (the crowning of the drag queen) with performer Xóchitl, who later became a 1980s star. It was then that Flores started dressing as a woman. At first she would do it only on the weekends or for special occasions. But in 1972, after falling in love with an Italian man, she made the decision to embrace who she was without caveat. It was a little longer before she was ready to tell her family, but in 1983, after the death of her father, she called her siblings to announce that henceforth she would be known as Samantha. “It’s about time,” replied her youngest sister.
Embracing her female identity marked a rebirth for Flores, in terms of whom she sees in the mirror, and how the world sees her. “As Samantha I feel absolutely happy,” Flores says. “Neither a woman nor a man. I am free!”
Translated from Spanish by Guillermina Olmedo y Vera
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